No platforming used to be something that was done to fascists. Photo: Getty
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“No platform” was once reserved for violent fascists. Now it's being used to silence debate

The no platform of now doesn’t target groups such as the National Front or the EDL – instead, it’s aimed at individuals who certainly do not trail the organised muscle of a thug army behind them.

What happened to no platform? The idea that certain viewpoints had no right to be expressed in public debate has never been wholly uncontroversial, but at least it used to be clear: as Nick Lowles of the anti-racism campaign Hope Not Hate explained it in a 2013 blog post, no platform was “the position where we [ie anti-fascist groups] refuse to allow fascists an opportunity to act like normal political parties […] which sometimes includes physically deny[ing] them the freedom to operate.”

No platform might be enacted in a number of ways: it could mean an institution refusing to host speakers associated with particular violent groups (something the NUS has historically done), or established political parties forbidding their representatives to share the stage with figures from far-right organisation. As a last resort, it meant taking direct action to prevent the proponent of an abhorred position from speaking. But it was traditionally about rejecting the rhetoric of violence – especially when that rhetoric was liable to inspire leagues of smash-happy skinheads.

Now, no platform's remit appears to be broader. Witness the recent video from a debate at Galway University, where writer and editor Alan Johnson attempted to make the case against a boycott of Israel. Johnson’s speech is barely audible above the noise of the crowd, who boo and drum the desks. The loudest opponent, dressed in the colours of the Palestinian flag, shouts: “Fucking Zionist fucking pricks […] Get the fuck off our campus.”

What’s at stake here isn’t the issue of right and wrong in Middle East politics, and your feelings on Johnson’s treatment shouldn’t be determined by whether you personally back sanctions against Israel or not (an issue on which even avowed opponents of Israeli policy might have good-faith disagreements, after all). His motion went unheard because there was an element of the audience that considered whatever he had to say to be unsayable. Not merely false, not something to be robustly opposed, but a position so appalling it simply shouldn’t be heard.

What’s truly remarkable is that while this is happening, no platform has been more or less abandoned by the anti-fascist movement. That wasn’t because of a sudden conversion to the benefits of free speech, and it wasn’t even close to to universally welcomed, but it was probably inevitable. There are two reasons for this, one political and one technical. Firstly, British far-right and anti-immigration parties started to enjoy electoral success in the early 21st century, making it difficult to justify refusing them a platform: once BNP leader Nick Griffin became Nick Griffin MEP, the case for keeping him off Question Time became at the very least tenuous.

Secondly, blogging and social media meant that a platform was no longer something that could be withheld: anyone with any views can now hold forth so long as they have an internet connection and a Twitter login. For Hope Not Hate’s Lowles, no platform has to be reinvented, from a policy of radical non-engagement to one of equally radical popular engagement by which campaigners can “deny fascists, organised racists and other haters the freedom to spread their poison within communities unchallenged.”

Whether that will be sufficient intervention to stem the necrotic spread of British racism is uncertain, and the aftermath of Griffin’s 2009 Question Time appearance offers ambivalent lessons. After a fleeting and insignificant bump in the polls, it seemed that cheerleaders for the power of scrutiny would be vindicated: Griffin’s twitchy, evasive performance was seen as a disaster within the BNP, and exacerbated the divisions that led to the party’s collapse, explains Daniel Trilling, author of Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s Far Right.

But long term, the outcome was less wholesome. “It contributed to the shifting rightwards of the debate on immigration,” says Trilling. We live in the era of the Go Home Van, in a time when less-than-alarmist reports on the effects of immigration are deemed so politically sensitive they have to be suppressed. Even if Griffin lost Question Time, we can’t pretend that anti-racism won the war.

It’s arguable that no platform must have failed long before 2009 for the BNP to have any electoral success, and yet there are still groups who aggressively advocate the strategy. There’s a difference, however. The no platform of now doesn’t target groups such as the National Front or the EDL – instead, it’s aimed at individuals who certainly do not trail the organised muscle of a thug army behind them. One of these individuals is the feminist journalist and campaigner Julie Bindel, who has been repeatedly no platformed because of a 2004 Guardian column in which she made facetious criticisms of gender reassignment surgery and transsexual activists that many people found offensive. She’s since apologised for both the tone and the content of the column, she tells me during a phone interview, but that hasn’t placated her opponents.

“I have to pay for the rest of my life because of a very small group of trans women,” she says. “I haven’t said anything hateful to any of these people, ever. All I have ever said was question the essentialist meaning of transgenderism, because, by positing gender as fixed it flies in the face of feminism.” Subsequently, Bindel has been prevented from speaking not just about transgender issues, but also about violence against women and girls. The no platforming has taken the form of direct intimidation – “I had death threats […] I was shouted at, physically attacked on stage,” Bindel tells me – as well as coming in more official guises. In 2011, the NUS GLBT conference voted to no platform her, and approved the extraordinary motion “this conference believes Julie Bindel is vile”. (Meanwhile, various tyrants and dictators have been hosted by NUS venues.)

While writing this article, I contacted Roz Kaveney, a trans activist and supporter of the no platform policy against Bindel. (Kaveney is also a founder member of Feminists Against Censorship, making her both an idealogical opponent of Bindel on pornography and an arguably curious advocate for no platform, although she sees no conflict between the two positions.) I ask Kaveney ask why she feels Bindel should be excluded from public debate, and she replies by email: “You would, I trust, accept that such places as universities are supposed to be safe spaces that have a duty of care to their students. Hate speech is, almost by definition, something which cannot be allowed in a safe space.”

However, when I ask Kaveney for some examples of Bindel’s statements which qualify as hate speech, she only says: “I’d be hard put to it to find an area in which Julie Bindel’s discourse does not, sooner or later, descend into hate speech.” But having withdrawn from the email correspondence, Kaveney then begins to tweet about our exchange. “I love the assumption that I have time and energy to list offensive remarks by Julie Bindel & then explain why each one of them is hatespeech,” reads one tweet. Another says: “Remember my past remarks that one aspect of WLF [white liberal feminist] transphobia is the demand for endless unpaid access to trans people’s time? That.”

Kaveney’s comments imply a trans consensus against Bindel, but there are plenty of dissenters. Journalist Jane Fae, who is also trans, disagrees with Kaveney. In an email, Fae (who has herself debated Bindel) says that she is opposed to no platforming, both in this specific case and generally, although she supports the right of individuals to refuse to share a platform. “I can’t see myself agreeing with much of what she [Bindel] has to say,” writes Fae, “but I do not feel intimidated by her.” These are, after all, disagreements about ideas, not personal attacks or acts of violence. The ability to debate competing viewpoints is one of the foundations of democratic society, and as dissent is elevated to the status of offence and then to hate speech, the consequences become alarming.

Intimidation is at the core of no platform – both the arguments for it and, increasingly, its practice. Why should a woman speaking for feminism, or a man speaking for Zionism, be deemed such a threat that they have to be shouted down, condemned as “vile”, or told to “fuck off”? Why, in the new economy of outrage, have people like Bindel and Johnson attracted the opprobrium that was formerly reserved for hypermasculine, anti-semitic white power movements? No platform now uses the pretext of opposing hate speech to justify outrageously dehumanising language, and sets up an ideal of “safe spaces” within which certain individuals can be harassed. A tool that was once intended to protect democracy from undemocratic movements has become a weapon used by the undemocratic against democracy.

 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Warren K Leffler at Wikimedia Commons
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"She wore a USB cord instead of a necklace": whatever happened to Cyberfeminism?

The movement was young, energetic, educated, and art school-heavy. Above all it was “positive”: both cyber-positive and sex-positive.

Sometime in the late 1990s, I met someone else called Joanna Walsh. The fact that this is also my name drew me to study her closely. We were about the same age. She worked in the tech side of the arts world, with which I was also connected via a loose network of zines, "comix" and journals. Instead of a necklace, she wore a USB cord. She knew how to program. She was a cyberfeminist. 

Cyberfeminism had been a word since 1991, coined separately by the British philosopher Sadie Plant (once profiled painfully in the Independent on Sunday as the “IT girl for the 21st Century”) who was then running the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit with fellow philosopher Nick Land, and by the Australian art collective VNS Matrix

In September 1997, the First Cyberfeminist International meet-up took palce in Germany, and the artist Cornelia Sollfrank writes that its members "agreed not to define the term" cyberfeminist, but to understand it through negative. As a result, the Old Boys Network, a cyerfeminist alliance founded at the event, wrote “100 Anti-Theses” in languages from Croatian to Indonesian. The theses defined cyberfeminism by what it is not: “cyberfeminisme n'est pas une pipe… cyberfeminism is not post-modern… cyberfeminismo no es rock'n’roll” - as a gap, a lack, but also posited this newly-available "cyber" space as a place into which bodies could be projected, and within which they could be remade.

Nineties cyberfeminism drew heavily on contemporary feminist postmodernist theory, including the work of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigary. As with any radical movement concerned with identity politics, there was a tension between repurposing or remixing stereotypes and the near-impossible task of destroying them and creating new archetypes. The work of trans cyberfeminist Sandy Stone is indicative of much of the movement’s gender-fluid stance: the Old Boys Network's founding aim was to “contribute[s] to the critical discourse on new media, especially gender-specific aspects,” by members who self-select “if you call yourself a woman.” 

"A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century” by VNS Matrix.

As Sadie Plant explains in her book Zeros and Ones—and as Elena Ferrante demonstrates through her (anti?) heroine Lila in the Neapolitan novels, who is an early coder — computing was once considered “women’s work’”. Like Plant, MIT Professor and digital theorist Sherry Turkle described women as digital natives, particularly suited to its “bricolage” methods. The VNS Matrix art collective, by contrast, saw women as biological infiltrators of “Big Daddy Mainframe”. 

Like other strands of 1990s feminism, whether they were prefixed with “Riot” or “Spice”, Cyberfeminism was “girl”-oriented. Zines were called gURL, and Geek Girl, and in 1995 Linda Dement made a “Cyberflesh Girlmonster”. The movement was young, energetic, educated, and art school-heavy. Above all it was “positive”: both “cyber-positive” and “sex-positive”. Cyberfeminism’s enthusiasm, its refusal to self-define, could be exhausting, but is it exhausted? The OBN's calendar takes us up to 2003, the function feminism timeline to 2005. In 2012 a reassessment of the movement titled Cyberfeminism 2.0, was published. What happened in the interim?

What happened is, we all became users. The internet is so embedded in our lives as to make the prefix “cyber” tautologous as “road traffic” or “free gift”, but use of a medium implies neither expertise or control. Not only have women become notoriously scarce in programming, but, as technology becomes more complex, everyone is losing access to the basic means of production. JR Carpenter, a digital artist who continues to make “handmade” web pages, quotes Lori Emerson’s 2014 Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound:

“‘The iPad works because users can’t know how it works.’ Reading the web on an iPhone, iPad, or similar device, readers do not have the option of viewing the page source. The iPad provides consumers with access to materials created by others, but cannot easily be used as a tool in the handcrafting of new materials.”

As internet consumers we are all feminised, invited to complete ourselves through purchase: “The boundary between empowerment/subjectivity/agency and market-driven formation of self, which in fact has never been clear, becomes more nebulous,” wrote Radhika Gajjala’s and Yeon Ju Oh in their introduction to Cyberfeminism 2.0. “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” declared Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto, published in 1991, Cyberfeminism’s year zero. But who are our cyborgs now? Default-female Siri and her cohort of servers with a smile? The internet’s “Mechanical Turks’”, mostly women in low-pay jobs whose hand-input is disguised as technology? 

The net can be an echo chamber of reinforced thought as, from Twitter to porn sites, users seek out communities that reflect their offline opinions. “Networked knowledge,” wrote David Weinberger  in a recent essay in the LARB, “is inextricable from its social context,” and can even offer a new, improved platform for offline prejudice. In April, the Guardian catalogued what everyone already knew: that’s it’s primarily their women (followed by non-white) correspondents whose work attracts trolling, abuse and threats.

An unusual feature of Cyberfeminism was how quickly it began to bemoan its own demise. Gashgirl/Doll Yoko/Francesca da Rimini of VNS Matrix wrote as early as 1997:

“after 6 years of surfen sibapussy g-slime as one of the vns matrix pussy posse i don't feel particularly inspired to comment anymore on cyberfeminism/s [if u dont have nothing new to say don't repeat yrself]… cept to say that as far as i rememba things vns matrix never *seriously* wanted to rule the world ..or women to dominate the net...necessarily.... .. but, as artists, we were serious bout usin strategies like irony 'n inversion of cultural stereotypes to raise some of the many issues around women and technology.”

As such, though the internet has been of inestimable benefit as a platform and network for feminist activists (at least those who can access the equipment), “online feminism” is not absolutely identifiable with Cyberfeminism. 

Like Ginger, Posh, Baby, Sporty and Scary, Cyberfeminism it posed a question, rather than giving an answer but, during a brief window of blue-sky thinking as to what the net could be. Artist Cornelia Sollfrank writes that “simply attaching the happy 'cyber' hype to the term feminism in the early 90s opened up immense potential. The synonym for an unreflective, euphoric understanding of new technologies, which 'cyber' definitely is, breathed new life into the debates around gender and feminism.”

Now, Cyberfeminism remains live because rejection of definition is its founding feature. Many 90s cyberfeminist groups and artists are still practicing, including Subrosa, Studio XX, and forums on OBN and elsewhere remain active. Members of the CCRU and VNS Matrix can be found working in academia and the arts, and contemporary theorists include Professor Radhika Gajjala who writes particularly on "subaltern" and south Asian "Cyberselves".“Cyberfeminism does not express itself in single, individual approaches but in the differences and spaces in between,” writes Sollfrank. “All continue to write the story.”

But now, when I use Google to search for “Joanna Walsh”, even in conjunction with institutions with which we were both linked, the only name I find is my own. 

This piece is part of our themed Internet Histories week. See the rest of the stories here